The Shortlist: Most Beautiful Films [Black and White]

Firstly I must confess to a glaring error regarding last week’s list. 8½ is clearly not a colour film, and my Shortlisting ran away with itself for a brief moment, resulting in that film ending up in the wrong place. Therefore I ask you to, in your mind, transplant 8½ to this list, where you will find a further 6 entries, and then last week’s list will round out to 7 entries. And there you have it. My 14 Most Beautiful Films Of All Time. Enjoy…

Editors Note: This is clearly also my fault. I don’t know how I missed it, in a couple of days I’ll correct the articles and remove this clarification, but this is me coming clean about my big error.

6.) Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Bergman regarded this his best film, and rightly so. It’s a film about self-doubt, dwindling faith, fear of nuclear annihilation, death and the harshness of reality. The screenplay and acting are among the best of all time but the photography, by DP Sven Nykvist, is what really informs the incredible tone. Many of Bergman’s films were shot during Summer – including his bleakest film, Cries And Whispers (1972) – but the bitter season of Winter lends even greater power to this story. You can feel a coldness throughout the film; the stillness of the outside world, covered in a blanket of snow and waiting for tragedy. It is a time of contemplation where warmth must be sought from other people – yet the people in Winter Light abandon each other. The photography never allows us a sense of hope; it is shaded, mournful, foreboding and chilling. Yet through the pain it is beautiful, and completely absorbing.

5.) Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)

Last week Barry Lyndon (1975) made the Colour Shortlist and I described DP John Alcott’s eye as being “incredibly sensitive… almost ethereal.” Well now he’s back with Overlord and that statement is truer than ever. A mix of archival footage and first-person fictional narrative, the film is about a young lad named Tom (Brian Stirner) encountering love and the horrors of war, simultaneously and for the first time. The tone of the film is incredibly delicate, almost dreamlike, perfectly encapsulated by the final scene where Tom imagines his death as poetically heroic; in slow motion he falls to his knees, sand rising around his knees as the gorgeous landscape folds in and we focus entirely on his individual demise. The shot then plays out from inside his fear-set eye, and he is killed for real in a disorienting frenzy of violence. His death is not poetic, it is starkly real, but Alcott feels his plight through a gorgeous and compassionate lens.

4.) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

Although many people remember It’s A Wonderful Life for its uplifting ending (the most heart-warming group hug in cinema history) Capra’s initially misunderstood masterpiece is actually a very dark and unsentimental film for the first two thirds; the tragic tale of a man who never realizes his dream, struggles to maintain a good life for his family, battles self-doubt and ultimately faces failure on the foot of a bridge, contemplating suicide in the darkness of a snowy Christmas Eve night. James Stewart – known as the lovable everyman – turns in a desperate and deeply emotional performance, but the dark tone can be attributed to the incredibly underrated cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, Joseph Walker and Victor Milner (uncredited). They give the town a real sense of feeling, accomplishing subtle lighting shifts to adjust the mood; their careful compositions give the film heart and a platform onto which Stewart delivered his finest performance.

3.) Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)

Rumble Fish isn’t just beautiful in an aesthetically conscious sense; it also showcases some extraordinary movement and camerawork. One scene sees Rusty James (Matt Dillon) marching his gang toward a fight, a low-angle shot tracking their aligned, cooler-than-cool footsteps as water drips to parallel their pace. Their rivals emerge in a explosion of light and smoke, illuminating the frame, and we’re made aware of the showdown which is about to commence. But the fight emerges as more of a dance sequence, such is its ethereal grace, as the camera tracks the fluidly balletic violence. A sweeping camera shot observes the men performing knife pirouettes, the ever-present mist cloaking their movement as the intense drum soundtrack pounds away in the background. In many ways it reminds me of West Side Story (1961). Proof that beauty doesn’t just lie in photography, Rumble Fish is on this list also for its choreography, score and editing. It’s pure cinema.

2.) The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

I haven’t seen The Third Man since I was at college, but in many ways I’ve seen it every day since. Some films implant themselves into your subconscious; perhaps thematically, but often visually. For example, everyone remembers the iconic shot of Orson Welles that adorns the UK DVD cover of The Third Man, and the sewer chase has become iconic too, thanks to Criterion. But this classic British noir has one image in particular to die for; DP Robert Krasker (who also shot Lean’s Brief Encounter, 1945) is a genius, his texturing and composition some of the finest in cinema history, and just look at the image above for proof, noticing how perfectly aligned the shot is. The shot lingers so that we may soak in its feeling, but there is no end to the depth that closes Carol Reed’s thrilling masterwork. You could get lost in that image, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

1.) Der Letzte Mann (F.W. Murnau, 1924)

Yes, I know. The fact that a German Expressionist film tops this list is hugely predictable, but Der Letzte Mann has the most incredible use of light and shadow that I’ve ever seen onscreen. I also think its innovative camerawork (the tracking shot started here, courtesy of Murnau and DP Karl Freund) is beautifully realized, utilized only when it serves the story, meaning that the smooth movement also carries emotional weight. The tragic story of a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who loses his job, and therefore his pride, Der Letzte Mann is ultimately about senescence and loneliness; therefore the film is shot through a dark lens, casting foreboding shadows over his miserablist existence. There’s a cynically upbeat ending tacked on but for the first 60 minutes this is a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece which uses aesthetic to inform character – the dulled stillness of the washrooms are effectively melancholic, for example. A stunning visual experience which everyone should see.